Weekly Cycle

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Desert in Words: Seeing the Whole Picture and the Torah Portion of Ki Tavoh

This week's Torah portion, Ki Tavoh, begins with the description of the offering of the first fruits in the Temple and contains a long series of "curses" if the Jewish people do not follow Hashem's commandments.

In the ritual of bringing the first fruit, there is a fascinating recitation that each individual makes, in which he retells the story of the Jewish people. Its beginning, and particularly the choice of words used, is the subject of much commentary and debate:

5. And you shall call out and say before the Lord, your God, "An Aramean [sought to] destroy my forefather, and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there with a small number of people, and there, he became a great, mighty, and numerous nation. 

RASHI - An Aramean [sought to] destroy my forefather: [The declarer] mentions [here] the kind deeds of the Omnipresent [by stating]: “An Aramean [sought to] destroy my forefather.” That is, Laban, when he pursued Jacob, sought to uproot [i.e., annihilate] all [the Jews], and since he intended to do so, the Omnipresent considered it as though he had actually done it (Sifrei 26:5)...

who then went down to Egypt: And [apart from Laban,] still others came upon us to annihilate us, for after this, Jacob went down to Egypt [“and the Egyptians treated us cruelly…”]. 

with a small number of people: [Namely,] seventy persons. — [Sifrei 26: 5; see Gen. 46:27

The following verses go on to speak of how the Jews were miraculously saved by G-d's mighty hand and outstretched arm, and how they were brought now brought to the Land of Milk and Honey, and to the Temple.

Not only is the verse about the "Aramean" puzzling,  but Rashi's comment, as well as its placement, is even more so. How is a description of the suffering of our forefather Jacob, as well as continued the suffering in Egypt and beyond, part of the description of the "kind deeds of the Omnipresent?" Yet, that is exactly the case. Rashi is coming to teach us that the end of the story is dependent on its beginning. The suffering in the hands of the Aramean is what helped transform Jacob into Israel. The suffering the Jewish people as a whole is what made possible for them to have such a close and deep bond with G-d, to the point that they merited the revelation of G-d Himself and His miraculous redemption.

When one is in the middle of the suffering, one cannot hope to see how the present struggle will ultimately lead to positive and even miraculous outcome. When one plants a seed, that seed is stuffed into the ground and even decomposes. It is hard to see how this could lead to something good. Yet, when one has the first fruit in hand, and merits to bring it as an offering to G-d in the Temple itself, then it becomes clear that all that suffering was not in vain, but rather was fundamental in developing a closer relationship with G-d and in the success that followed.

This message is equally applicable to the curses that come towards the end of the Torah portion. The suffering described is also not for naught. It is part and parcel of the ultimate, highest blessings that are still to come. In fact these blessings are included in the very words used for the curses, albeit in a hidden fashion. It is simply a matter of interpretation.

Similarly, in a sense, Laban the Aramean did "destroy" Jacob, since Jacob was no longer the same after his experience living with such an evil and deceiving individual. The suffering and "destruction" that Jacob underwent made a him a better and stronger person, both spiritually and physically. This is true for Jacob as well as for all of his descendants. This was seen clearly in the times of the Tabernacle and of the first two Temples, and will be seen clearly again soon, with the building of the final Third Temple, speedily in our days. 

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Desert in Words: Tackling the "Evil" Inclination and the Torah Portion of Ki Tetzeh

This week's Torah portion begins with speaking about going to war and finding a captive. Our sages teach us that even though the Torah seems to be speaking about a physical war against an enemy nation, the verses are also applicable to our own internal spiritual war, against the Yetzer HaRah, the evil inclination.

In fact, Rashi states as much quite explicitly, even though, his statement is usually read in a different way:

10. If you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord, your God, will deliver him into your hands, and you take his captives, 11. and you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her, you may take [her] for yourself as a wife.
ולקחת לך לאשה: לא דברה תורה אלא כנגד יצר הרע

 you may take [her] for yourself as a wife: Scripture is speaking only against the evil inclination. For if the Holy One, blessed is He, would not permit her to him, he would take her illicitly. [The Torah teaches us, however, that] if he marries her, he will ultimately come to despise her, as it says after this, “If a man has [two wives-one beloved and the other despised]” (verse 15); [moreover] he will ultimately father through her a wayward and rebellious son (see verse 18). For this reason, these passages are juxtaposed. — [Tanchuma 1]

The traditional reading of this Rashi is that, in permitting this marriage, the Torah is allowing the soldier to do, what he would likely do anyway because of his evil inclination. His desire for this woman would be so strong, that it's better to allow him to take her in a permissible way.

Perhaps an equally valid reading of Rashi would be simply to interpret Rashi to mean that this captive from your enemy's land is itself the evil inclination. All three segments mentioned by Rashi can be read in this way: the "beautiful captive" is the evil inclination, also the "despised wife," as well as the "wayward and rebellious son."
The evil inclination is not really "evil." It's is our natural, self-centered, animal instinct, which is base, yet nevertheless important for survival. In Kabbalah and Chassidut, instead of good and evil inclinations, the terms used are G-dly soul and animal soul.

The animal soul attracts us, on a base level because of the physical pleasures it can bring us, but on a higher level, for the mitzvoth we can accomplish with it. After all, most mitzvoth are physical in nature, so the physical drives of the animal soul are important to get the mitzvoth done in the best possible way. However, before being able to use the animal soul for mitzvoth, it has to be somewhat disarmed or "defanged:"

12. You shall bring her into your home, and she shall shave her head and let her nails grow. 13. And she shall remove the garment of her captivity from upon herself, and stay in your house, and weep for her father and her mother for a full month. After that, you may be intimate with her and possess her, and she will be a wife for you.
In Judaism, there are proper ways to perform physical acts that constitute mitzvoth. The most common are probably eating and having marital relations in a kosher way, but there are others as well, such as proper commercial dealings, proper speech, etc.

Not everyone in the Jewish people is necessarily required or up for the task of constantly engaging the animal soul to perform mitzvoth.

14. And it will be, if you do not desire her, then you shall send her away wherever she wishes, but you shall not sell her for money. You shall not keep her as a servant, because you have afflicted her.

There is room in Judaism for those that want to lead a more spiritual existence, such as those that wish to lead a life of Torah study. However, the Torah warns that one should not do so "for money." Pirkei Avot states, "Do not make the Torah into a crown with which to aggrandize yourself or a spade with which to dig."

Judaism does not believe in complete ascetism. Some level of physicality will always be present. Still, those that have "afflicted" their animal soul, and chosen not to use it for mitzvoth, will not be able to "keep her as a servant." For these people, the animal soul will not be a very strong tool or aid in their G-dly service.

Similarly, when it comes to the son of the beloved wife (the G-dly soul) and the son of the despised wife (the animal soul), a person must realize that the animal soul is actually the firstborn. The animal soul comes to a person first, much before the G-dly soul. One should not underestimate its importance.

17. Rather, he must acknowledge the firstborn, the son of the despised [wife] and give him a double share in all that he possesses, because he [this firstborn son] is the first of his strength, then he has the birthright entitlement.
Yet, there are aspects of the Yetzer HaRah that have no positive characteristics whatsoever. There are parts of the animal soul that are like Amalek: wayward and rebellious to the extreme, a "glutton and a guzzler." These parts have to be destroyed altogether:

21. And all the men of his city shall pelt him to death with stones, and he shall die. So shall you clear out the evil from among you, and all Israel will listen and fear.

The words in Hebrew for "listen and fear" are Yishme'u veYira'u,  יִשְׁמְעוּ וְיִרָאוּ - containing the roots for Reiyah (sight) and Shmiyah (hearing). These in turn are the roots for the names Reuven and Shimon, the first two sons of Jacob.

A question arises as to how the above applies to our patriarch Jacob on a simple level. There is a tradition that our patriarchs were so spiritually sensitive that they kept the Torah much before it was given at Mount Sinai. If so, how is it that Jacob gave the right of firstborn to Joseph, the son of Rachel, the wife he most loved, instead of Reuben, the firstborn, son of Leah?

Comes the Torah and joins the segment regarding the sons of the two wives to the segment regarding the wayward and rebellious son. A son that is deserving of death certainly would not be entitled to anything. There are differences of opinions as to what exactly were the sins of Reuven, Shimon and Levi, but there is one sin that all the older brothers of Joseph committed, which is in fact punishable by death. This sin is also addressed in this week's Torah portion (Ch. 24):

7. If a man is discovered kidnapping any person from among his brothers, of the children of Israel, and treats him as a slave and sells him that thief shall die, so that you shall clear out the evil from among you.
The brothers kidnapped Yoseph HaTzadik (Joseph the Righteous) and sold him as a slave. Rashi explains that there are other requirements for the death penalty, which were not met by Joseph's brothers, such as witnesses and a warning, and treating the person as a slave. Nevertheless, the verse appears to be direct reference to Joseph's situation. By kidnapping Joseph, the older brothers appear to have forfeited their firstborn right. As the Torah itself shows, it was exactly by kidnapping Joseph that the brothers brought upon themselves the very thing they were trying to avoid: Joseph's rule over them.

In fact, we read about this verse on Yom Kippur, in the context of the death of the Asarah Harugei Malchut, the Ten Martyrs (including tzadikim such as Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiva) who were viciously killed by the Romans. The Roman emperor used this exact verse to justify killing the ten sages. He stated that their death was necessary to atone for the sin of the ten brothers of Joseph.

 Let us not wait until Yom Kippur to remember the lessons of repentance and atonement. Let us start today, right now, to tackle our animal inclination, treat our brothers properly, and to attach ourselves to Tzadikim Amiti'im, the true sages, of our generation and of the past. May we then merit to see the true and complete redemption of our people and of the world at large.  

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